Embracing the new dimensions of the city: how far was spiritualism tolerated in nineteenth-century Birmingham?

Much like London, Birmingham was known for its rapidly altering social and cultural structure, sparked by the industrial revolution. With this, non-conformity began to flourish in the Midlands, with Birmingham becoming a town where a relatively large number of educated people embraced the new opportunities offered by the city, including religious ones. Between 1800 and 1900, the population in Birmingham increased rapidly and this had a close link to the developments and changing nature of religious belief within the city. In 1800 it was estimated that seventeen places of worship were present, with 8 non-conformist denominations. And by 1892 the numbers had grown significantly. A religious census conducted by the Birmingham News highlighted how there were now 21 denominations and 221 places of worship showing the vast growth in religion and especially in religious diversity that was present in this new industrial city.[1]

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That being said, not all non-conformist sects were treated alike. Spiritualism was regarded by many as an odd, ‘superstitious’ phenomenon. Originating in London, and being linked to transatlantic phenomena such as mesmerism, spiritualism has usually been seen as the result of gendered, psychological and medical tensions. The multifarious and highly democratic world of non-conformity provided fertile soil for it.[2] This blog post and my wider thesis will challenge the existing historiography by the likes of Alex Owen and Christine Ferguson, who have initiated investigations into spiritualism and psychiatry but from a London-centric viewpoint. Birmingham has therefore so far gone ‘under the radar’ in terms of spiritualism.

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Although it wasn’t officially recorded in census records, spiritualism was not hidden from society; rather it was present and active in and around the city, particularly engaging women. Much like other non-conformist sects, spiritualist religious bodies gained converts and founded churches across Birmingham and the wider region. They did not follow a traditional or identical pattern.[3] This can be seen in the quotation featured in Light (a prominent and nationally circulated spiritualist newspaper), was condensed from a paper by A. J. Smyth, prepared for the Spiritualists’ National Federation Conference in Walsall on July 20th 1895.[4]

It seeks to dethrone false gods, and expose sham religions, yet is profoundly reverential and exalts goodness. It opens wide the portals of freedom of thought and cosmopolitan associations, yet is most exacting in its psychological requirements.[5]

Rather than seeking to reject all forms of worship, instead Smyth argued that spiritualism was simply a way of ‘dethroning false gods’.[6] Following on from this, many middle-class women now had the opportunity to utilise their intellect and the new urban landscape of Birmingham to engage with spiritualism and partake in séances and it was because of this that spiritualism became less and less tolerated in society. [7]

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One woman who was responsible for the growth of spiritualism in Birmingham was Mrs Caroline Groom. As seen in her portrait from a profile The Medium and Daybreak published about her, she was the epitome of a middle-class Victorian woman. Originally from Warwickshire and the daughter of a farmer, she married a Richard Groom and moved to Birmingham. Both Caroline and Richard were followers of the ministry of George Dawson (a preacher based in Birmingham), in which they were introduced to the concept of spiritualism. For four years Caroline sat and engaged in séances to develop her healing powers, so much so that she was referred to as the ‘arch-spiritualist of Birmingham’ in the Birmingham Gazette and Express in 1907.[8]

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What is important to highlight here is that a female was now a leading body in a religious organisation. According to many spiritualists, without women, a connection to the spirit world could not be ascertained. What was commonly deemed by men as their ‘passive’ mind was crucial in being able to initiate a connection to the spirits. Therefore, without women at the centre of spiritualism, it would not have flourished and gained such a following.[9] And yet it was because of this that her sanity was often questioned, leading on to the connection with mental health. For many unfamiliar with the religious movement, it was often linked back to ‘dark magic’ or seen as a complete break away from orthodox Christianity. However, it was predominantly engaged with because it provided a link with the deceased, and was a new way in which to mourn the loss of loved ones.[10]

Mrs Groom’s prominence made her a target for speculative criticism by ‘vindictive bigots’. The Two Worlds in October 1895 commented that Y.M.C.A. men ‘have dogged her footsteps at séances and public meetings, caused uproarious proceedings, frantically yelling “Witch! Witch!” while they jostled and threatened’. This public condemnation of Mrs Groom highlights the intolerance of spiritualism within the city, and perhaps hints at tensions between the empowerment it offered women and the sensibilities of religious men. [11]

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The expansion of the city set Birmingham up to become a major political and cultural influence in the nineteenth century. Both spiritualists and mainstream churches embraced the new opportunities it offered, providing new outlets for educated women and men to engage with. Yet very little has been written in terms of spiritualism in Birmingham during the late nineteenth century despite its evident prevalence within the city. My thesis will therefore contribute to and challenge an existing historiography that has been hitherto focused too much on London, assuming that the tensions between science and religion on which spiritualism thrived radiated from there. In adopting a regional perspective, I seek to ascertain how far the same connections between psychiatry, spiritualism, ‘science’ and mainstream religion were represented in a very different regional context.

 

Sophie Allen is a second-year PhD candidate at Newman University. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the development of spiritualism in Birmingham, the experience of women and their participation in the active side of spiritualism, for example conducting séances. Her thesis will analyse the role of the female mind in engaging with the spiritual world as it was encouraged by fellow believers and questioned by the psychiatric profession in the late nineteenth century.

As well as her thesis, Sophie co-created Newmarts (Newman Universities Arts and Humanities Research blog) and is an editor for Newman University’s Critical Commentary Journal. You can find her on twitter @SophieAllen_ and also contact her via email alle304@newman.ac.uk.

 

[1] ‘Religious History: Protestant Nonconformity’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, ed. W B Stephens (London, 1964), pp. 411-434.

[2] ‘Religious History: Protestant Nonconformity’, in A History of the County of Warwick, Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, ed. W B Stephens (London, 1964), pp. 411-434.

[3] ‘Religious History: Protestant Nonconformity’, ed. W B Stephens, pp. 411-434.

[4] Light, Vol. 15, July 20th 1895, p. 338.

[5] Light, Vol. 15, July 20th 1895, p. 338.

[6] Light, Vol. 15, July 20th 1895, p. 338.

[7] J. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, London, 1992, pp. 171-173.

[8] Birmingham Gazette and Express, 1st June, 1907,

[9] A. Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, London, 2004, p. 242.

[10] A. Owen, The Place of Enchantment, p. 88.

[11] The Two Worlds, October 4, 1895, p. 628.

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